By Nena Hawke
British artists Gilbert & George – both now in their late ’70s – have been a prickly proposition for the culture establishment since proclaiming their support for Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher back in the politically tumultuous 1980s. After all, the art world loves to make those big capital transactions…but it prefers to publicly nurture a more, ahem, egalitarian value set.
Most recently, the pair came out for the leavers in the Brexit debate – which surely lost them a few fair weather, and more liberal minded friends. But more keen observers have always understood that, whatever their sociopolitical alignments, their work itself is rife with contradiction and nuance.
Curiously, the lockdowns were possibly not all that much of an upset for them, as they have lived at the same East London residence – 12 Fournier Street in the colorfully diverse Spitalfields neighborhood – since 1968, claim to not really have any friends, and mostly go out and about in their own neighborhood, to observe life around them…which in turns provides the inspiration for their art. Said art has garnered them international fame and a devoted cult audience, despite their rejection of everything that has ever scored high on the perpetual trendometer.
But they forward a simple justification for the smallness of their existence: “Fournier Street is the center of the world for us. There is nothing that happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End first.” If you’ve spent time there, you know it’s probably not much of an exaggeration.
Reliably prolific, they’ve just emerged from the now fading pandemic with a striking new set of images, appropriately gathered together for an exhibition titled NEW NORMAL PICTURES, opening at Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin May 29. What is perhaps most fascinating about the collection, is that the works were actually made over a period of about two years; yet each seems to express some visceral interpretation of the emotional effects of the coronavirus crisis on the human psyche – which was tested in a way it had rarely ever before been. London, of course, was hit particularly hard by COVID.
It’s an extension of their reference to their artistic journey as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, traversing the rich, multicultural cityscape that is the East End, observing life as it unfolds, and documenting it in a way that affords the viewer a multitude of possible interpretations. Except that now the context has obviously been altered by a universal, and deadly condition. In BENCH TEST, for instance, they appear to be being hurtled from said bench by some unidentifiable force – with expressions of fear and confusion notably marking their countenances. And in MOSS CLOSE they are trapped fearfully in a corner, with two signs above them reading “Women’s Prayer Hall” and “Funeral Service.”
G&G offer, “What we confront in our life is in our pictures, so we have all these subjects. Our subjects that are inside ourselves are part of universal thought: death, hope, life, fear, sex, money, race, religion, shitty, naked, human, world. All the thoughts and feelings that lie inside everyone. And we never run out of subjects, because even getting old is an amazing subject.”
Gilbert & George’s NEW NORMAL PICTURES is on show at Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin from May 29 through July 31, 2021.